Louisville's persistent conference-hopping over the past four decades or so has made finding steady rivals outside of the University of Kentucky a bit of a chore.
Most debates surrounding the topic of U of L's secondary rival(s) will settle on longtime conference companion Cincinnati, Memphis or an old Big East Big East and future ACC cohort like Syracuse. The basis for these rivalries centers around the heightened importance given to football and men's basketball...or in Memphis' case, pretty much just men's basketball.
When it comes to America's third major sport, however, no flame of contention has burned brighter in recent years for Louisville than the one between it and Vanderbilt. The latest chapter in the book co-authored by these two regional powers will be written Tuesday night in Nashville, when the Cards face the Commodores for the first time since ruining their College World Series dreams last June.
When looking at the U of L/Vandy series on paper, it might seem like the word "rivalry" is a mistake. The Commodores lead the all-time series 22-6 and had been 13-0 against Louisville in games played in Nashville before last year's Super Regional. The 'Dores have been fairly dominant even during the Dan McDonnell era, owning a 9-4 advantage over the Cards.
Despite the accurately perceived series one-sidedness, postseason history has a way of overriding everything else in sports, and these two teams have more of it than any pair in the region.
Even though Louisville and Vanderbilt have been playing for years, the genesis of the rivalry lies with the 2009 NCAA Tournament regional hosted at Jim Patterson Stadium. It was there that the Cardinals finally got the better of Vandy, winning an emotional 5-3 winner-take-all championship game (the Commodores had defeated the Cardinals 8-4 earlier in the day) to advance to their second super regional in three years.
The rivalry then officially became a rivalry during the regular season meeting in 2010.
The Cardinals and Commodores, both ranked in the top 20 nationally at the time, played for five hours and 33 minutes in front of the largest home crowd ever to see a college baseball game in Nashville. The game ended in the bottom of the 17th when Jason Esposito drilled a solo home run over the left field fence. The third baseman then promptly stared down the U of L bench and flipped his bat into the air, which landed near the mound and pitcher Andy Flatt.
What Louisville perceived as an act of showboating, Esposito said was an accident.
"I was mortified," Esposito said after the game. "I was worried about whether (the bat) was going to hit anybody. It was definitely not my intention. My emotions got the better of me. I knew it was going to be perceived the wrong way."
Whatever the case, the two teams opted not to shake hands after the game.
That set the stage for another regional showdown at Jim Patterson Stadium in June, where arguably the best Cardinal team of all-time was expected to make another run to the College World Series and have a legitimate shot at a national title. Vanderbilt made sure that didn't happen, bouncing back from a 7-1 defeat at the hands of U of L to stun the Cards in consecutive games and claim the regional title. The second victory came via a brutally dramatic walk-off suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 10th inning.
The two teams met in the postseason for the first time since that game last June, when a Louisville team that had been pummeled by Vandy just seven weeks earlier went down to Nashville and stunned the second-seeded Commodores on consecutive days to earn a trip to the College World Series. It was cool.
The next item on U of L's rivalry to-do list is claiming the traveling barrel trophy that the two teams began playing for three seasons ago. Vanderbilt has maintained the barrel in each of the previous two seasons via convincing victories.
Also on the line for the Cards Tuesday evening is their 10-game winning streak, the second-longest in program history. The longest is 16 games, a streak which U of L started after losing to Vandy in last season's rivalry game.
First pitch at Hawkins Field between the No. 5 Cards and the No. 10 Commodores is set for 7:30 p.m.
Here are the rest of the game notes from U of L Sports:
LOU: Fr. LHP Josh Rogers (1-2, 3.45 ERA)
VU: So. RHP Walker Buehler (8-1, 1.49 ERA)
ABOUT THE CARDINALS
Louisville is 37-11 overall and atop the American Conference standings with a 14-4 mark after sweeping a three-game series at USF last weekend. The Cardinals will play four road games this week before closing the regular season with four home games next week.
ABOUT THE COMMODORES
Vanderbilt is 36-12 overall and in second place in the SEC East with a 14-10 league mark after sweeping a three-game set at Missouri last weekend. The Commodores were 54-12 last season, including a 26-3 league mark to win the SEC title.
Louisville is 6-22 all-time against Vanderbilt in a series that dates back to 1971. The programs have met in the postseason three times in the last five seasons.
LOUISVILLE NOTES AND TRENDS
- Louisville is 33-0 this season when leading after the eighth inning and has won 88 straight games when entering the ninth with the lead going back to May 2012.
- The Cardinals are 28-2 this season when out-hitting their opponents and 8-7 when being out-hit.
- Louisville has won 44 straight games dating back to last season when scoring five runs or more including a 28-0 record this season.
- The Cardinals are 23-3 this season against righty starters and 14-8 against lefties.
- The Cardinals have allowed two or fewer earned runs in 29 of 48 games this season (including nine of the last 10), something they did in 36 of 65 in 2013.
- During the current 10-game winning streak, the bullpen has allowed just five earned runs in 34.2 innings. Overall, the pitching staff has a 1.66 ERA in the last 10 games with 80 strikeouts in 92.0 innings.
- Louisville enters the week ranked second in the nation in stolen bases with 102 and third in stolen bases per game at 2.13.
- The Cardinals are also 12th nationally in HBP (81), 16th in runs (316), and 23rd in scoring (6.6 per game).
- The Louisville pitching staff is ranked 13th nationally in hits allowed per 9 IP (7.33), 14th in strikeouts per 9 IP (8.2) and 22nd in ERA (2.79).
- Sutton Whiting is ranked fourth in the nation with 30 stolen bases in 35 attempts while also ranking 26th nationally in walks per game at 0.79.
- Jeff Gardner is 14th nationally in RBI with 52 and Cole Sturgeon is eighth in triples with six.